Doing Science on a Glacier
Thousands of tourists visit the Athabasca Glacier each year—it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in North America. But it contains hidden dangers, including, in early September, flowing streams of ice-cold water; crevasses, or giant cracks in the ice; and moulins, gaping holes caused by meltwater that can drill straight through to the bottom of the glacier. “Moulins equal death” is one memorable slogan professors Robert Hawley and Erich Osterberg teach the students before their first ascent onto the ice.
“To bring a group of students out on a glacier who’ve never been there before, the very first thing you have to think about is, what is the glacier you’re going to and what are the dangers associated with it?” says Hawley. “Our first day on the ice, our goal is to get the students comfortable walking on ice.”
Some tips for hiking safely on a glacier: Bring warm clothes in layers. Wear microspikes on your boots. Follow in the tracks of the person in front of you. Keep to the higher terrain, not the gullies. Be careful crossing streams. And, of course, keep away from moulins.
“It’s been nice developing more comfort with glacier travel,” Becca Miller ’20 says, three days into the glacier segment. “The first day, we were all following like little ducklings behind Bob. Today Erich gave me the GPS and said, ‘OK, you go to this point.’ So we had to navigate a bit more on our own.”
For many of the students, the experience is awe-inspiring. “I had never seen a glacier and within an hour, I had this feeling of childish wonder, like, I’m walking on this sheet of ice and I still can’t believe it’s 300 meters thick,” says Zachary Berkow ’20.
Berit DeGrandpre ’20 agrees. “I truly don’t feel like I have words to describe the experience. It’s magnificent in every way. The glacier is so vast, and the mountains just rupture on the sides of it. We’re so lucky to be able to do this.”
Hiking to the Icefall
After a day of acclimating to the ice, practicing surveying techniques, and learning about radio echo soundings, the students prepare for a more intensive, full-day hike from the toe of the glacier to the first of three icefalls, which form as the glacier stretches over steep cliffs in the bedrock where the ice drops into the valley from the Columbia Icefield. The hike is also an opportunity to recover footage from a time-lapse camera that Osterberg and his colleagues have been using to track the glacier’s movement over time.
But the morning of the icefall hike, there’s a potential stumbling block: the weather.
“We woke up and it was pouring down rain,” Osterberg says. “The original plan was to spend all day on the glacier, and it was when we were going to be most exposed to the weather. Bob and I looked at that and said I don’t think that’s going to work today, let’s come up with other plans.”
They quickly develop Plan B and C, and share their thinking with the students before setting out for the visitors center, where they will check the radar and make a final decision.
“Today was less data-collection focused and more centered on seeing how magnificent and vast the glacier really is.”
Berit DeGrandpre ’20
This kind of contingency thinking is part of the students’ learning experience, too, Osterberg says. “They’re learning how expedition field work works. Anytime we go on a research expedition, we are constantly trying to adapt to the situation—to the weather or any other challenge that comes up. You have to change with the changing conditions to be successful.”
Fortunately, the sky begins to clear. “Literally as we’re driving, we’re watching the clouds part, Bob and I are on the radios going, I don’t know, maybe it’s good, and then we come around the corner and the sun was shining through a little hole and we said, I think we can do it.”
The icefall is the most challenging hike the students will do on this section of the Stretch. Hawley has scouted a route ahead of time, and coaches the students on how to walk while roped together, and how to safely carry an ice axe.
“An icefall is a part of the glacier where it’s flowing over a bedrock step,” says Hawley. “The ice is trying to stretch, but it can’t keep up, and so the ice breaks apart into these great crevasses, which are beautiful, but treacherous.”
“It was just an incredible day,” says DeGrandpre. “Today was less data-collection focused and more centered on seeing how magnificent and vast the glacier really is.”
“We walked out on this ridge with all these crevasses around us that went indefinitely into the ice. It made me appreciative of our natural world, but it also made me want to understand it better. Which I think was the goal of the professors—to make us excited about learning about glaciers.”
Real World Research
The radio echo sounding data Whittaker Fanestil ’20 observes on the group’s first day on the ice is part of a student-led project—the senior thesis research of Ian Raphael ’18, which he plans to publish this winter with Hawley as a coauthor. With the help of classmate Andrew Crutchfield ’18, Raphael is measuring the volume of the Athabasca glacier—data that are helping them predict how fast Athabasca is disappearing.
Exactly two years ago, Raphael and Crutchfield were Stretchies themselves. “Stepping onto the Athabasca Glacier in September 2016 was my first time actually on a glacier,” says Crutchfield. “All I can remember from this point in the Stretch is just being insanely excited to be here.”
Now the two recent graduates are sharing their expertise with current students. “We worked with Stretchies all day, and I taught two different Stretchies how to use the oscilloscope to see exactly what we were looking for with the radio echo sounding wave, to the point where I was out of a job, essentially,” Crutchfield says. “It’s great to be able to teach this and to see how inspired they get to see us out here doing real research.”
Fanestil says, “To see a student who’s just a year and half older than me who’s able to come out and set up all the equipment on the glacier and then show me how to set it up makes me feel so excited and motivated to do something like this myself.”
Two years before, Crutchfield experienced something similar. “Stepping onto the glacier my first time, in 2016, was so amazing that I knew that I wanted to do some kind of research like that in the future,” he says. Back in Hanover, he met with Hawley, who helped steer him to a project analyzing satellite data from the Greenland ice sheet, which became his senior thesis.
This sort of inspiration is one of the goals of the Stretch. Throughout their nine weeks on the road, the students will have opportunities to meet alumni at various stages of their careers in the earth sciences, both in academia and the private sector. And they’ll live and work with faculty and graduate students who are also modeling the scientific life. As a result, many students will return to Hanover eager for more experience. “It’s really special because they’re seeing two undergrads who were in their shoes just a couple of years ago now here doing their own unique research project, which we’re going to publish,” says Osterberg. “And then they see the next stage, the TAs who are doing their own research and bringing their expertise into what we’re doing. I think it shows the students the possibility of their research trajectory, should they choose to continue to do earth sciences.”
Why Research Matters
On the group’s last day at the glacier, they fan out in groups to map the rocky forefield in front of the ice—part of an effort to measure how far the glacier has receded in recent years. At intervals all along the trail through the moraine, signs mark where the ice once extended and the date when it last reached this point. The Athabasca, like glaciers around the world, is disappearing, the result of a warming climate.
“Glaciers and ice sheets worldwide are retreating,” says Hawley. “Their mass balance”—the difference between how much the glacier grows in winter and melts in summer—“is negative, and that means that water that was stored as ice is running off and going into the ocean and contributing to sea-level rise.”
Indeed, the radio echo soundings that Raphael is collecting and analyzing from the Athabasca have allowed him to estimate that the glacier will be gone—all the way to the first icefall where the students hiked—by 2060.
Apart from confirming a sobering reality, this research matters, Raphael says, because “getting an index on as many glaciers as we can gives us a more comprehensive understanding of what’s happening with the ice mass on this planet. Hopefully, with this data, we can predict when this glacier will entirely disappear, and that also tells us about water supply to this region and global sea level rise.”
Counterintuitively, small mountain glaciers like Athabasca are contributing more to rising sea levels than the polar ice sheets are. “They’re melting faster,” Hawley says.
Osterberg leads the students to a small, flat boulder several hundred yards from where the ice begins. He points out a cavity in the gravel in front of the boulder, which is arranged in a directional pattern known as “fluting”—a clue to how ice once flowed over this spot. But the boulder itself tells a story, he says.
“This is a very special boulder. The first time that Bob and I did this Stretch segment, in 2008, this is the boulder where we sat with the students and actually put our crampons on, because from here we were able to step directly onto the glacier,” he says. “And you can see today just how far back the glacier has retreated with all the recent warming. It’s just a massive volume of ice that has been lost to these rivers, eventually out to the ocean.”
Witnessing how the Athabasca is changing is motivating, DeGrandpre says. “It puts things in perspective to see water rushing off the glacier every day and to talk to our professors how about five years ago the glacier was so much bigger than it is now. That’s pretty scary. But with that knowledge, hopefully our generation can do something about it.”